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After years of hedging next-day ratings to little effect, 2014 may finally have brought a sea change in how most people judge and digest the success of a television series.
Networks are wooing more and more advertisers based on DVR stats and time-shifting, and some have turned their backs to even discussing live viewership. It’s as much of an issue with cable as with anyone, but broadcasters may have encountered the biggest uphill battle in terms of perception. And that’s as good a reason as any to point out what’s working.
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Looking back on the year (and, more specifically, the 2014-15 broadcast season to date), there have been unquestionable successes — each of which tells an even stronger story once you take into account who’s watching the next week or even month after a premiere. And while the below don’t represent the top 10 shows across the entire dial or even all of broadcast (sports and reality, each a different beast, are omitted), they are the best of their breed at a particularly confusing time to be a Big Four drama or comedy.
Ranked by their current season averages in live-plus-7 ratings in the key demographic of adults 18-49, per Nielsen Media, these shows also boast strong viewership and (in many cases) a handsome afterlife online and on-demand after the now-obligatory DVR lifts are tallied.
1. The Big Bang Theory
No surprise here. Lifting CBS’ Monday at the top of the fall season and seamlessly shifting back into its Thursday roost after the network’s eight-week dalliance with the NFL, The Big Bang Theory remains a juggernaut and (almost) the highest-rated scripted series on all of TV. (Bragging rights still go to AMC’s The Walking Dead.) There are cracks in the armor, sure, with a 10 percent drop from last season … but this is a network comedy in its eighth season and a time when most of its contemporaries can’t make it past 13 episodes. Live-plus-7 ratings, the default measurement for TV success, place Big Bang as the second-most-watched show on broadcast, shy of NCIS, but a digital-friendly audience puts its combined multiplatform gross to the top with a whopping 23.4 million weekly viewers.
2. Modern Family
The current dire straits of the network comedy are even more obvious when you consider the top two series across the Big Four are veteran sitcoms. Still the runner-up, Modern Family (5.6 rating with adults 18-49) is virtually dead even with how it was performing this time last year, and that five-year winning streak at the Emmys certainly hasn’t hurt it. ABC’s MVP (non-Shonda Rhimes class) also sees a bigger chunk of its ratings haul come from DVR than The Big Bang Theory. They each rise by approximately two points in the key demo after a week’s worth of viewing, a 65 percent lift for Modern Family compared to Big Bang‘s 51 percent.
3. How to Get Away With Murder
The fall’s biggest champ, How to Get Away With Murder, easily ranks as the No. 1 new show of the season. Thanks to ABC’s targeted block of Rhimes-produced dramas, Murder is outpacing the performance of any freshman hit in recent memory — significantly bigger than 2013 (The Blacklist) and 2012 (Revolution) breakouts. Murder may track behind lead-in Scandal in same-day viewing, but it jumps with DVR and sees ABC’s most multiplatform viewers (by far) with an additional 1.8 ratings points in the key demo coming from VOD and online. That’s the average rating for an episode of The Mysteries of Laura. Period.
What little thunder Murder may have stolen from Scandal in its move to Thursday’s 10 p.m. slot is negligible. The No. 4 show on broadcast, Scandal also is the only top returning drama to improve year-to-year. The chewy center of ABC’s TGIT lineup is still its biggest draw in live-plus-same-day with adults 18-49, but it also boasts a long tail of viewers catching up on DVR and online. It sees a 26 percent bump from streaming and on-demand plays alone.
5. The Blacklist
Blacklist‘s performance outside of traditional time-shifting is not altogether clear, as networks tabulate their own multiplatform scores and NBC tends to focus on freshmen, but it regularly adds the most viewers of any broadcast series each week, and its showing with adults 18-49 is only slightly diminished in its sophomore year. Time-slot replacement State of Affairs proves that it’s not just Voice magic driving interest in Blacklist — something that NBC should feel good about as February’s big Super Bowl episode and ensuing migration to Thursdays approach.
The second-biggest broadcast newbie, the Batman prequel has been a bright spot for Fox and its biggest multiplatform performer to date. It’s adding 135 percent of its live-plus-same-day audience over 30 days of viewing — including 3.3 million from Fox.com, Hulu and on-demand for a total of nearly 16 million viewers. Among adults 18-49, Gotham is seeing bigger and bigger lifts from DVR. Its current season average, a 4.3 rating, sees a 72 percent bump from its 8 p.m. Monday time slot.
7. Family Guy
Thanks in no small part to that gargantuan season opener, a one-hour crossover episode with The Simpsons, Family Guy is one of the most-improved series of the 2014-15 season and continues to find much of its exceptionally young audience online. The Seth MacFarlane toon, and only animated entry in the top 10, is up 18 percent from last season in the key demo and jumps to 11.7 million viewers per episode with 30 days of multiplatform eyeballs.
8. Grey’s Anatomy
Nearing the bottom of the top 10 are two dramas that are straight-up long in the tooth. Grey’s Anatomy remains a broadcast fixture in its 11th (eleventh!) season, even in its move to the less-favorable 8 p.m. slot — where it now goes head-to-head with The Big Bang Theory on Thursdays. Before its handsome 25 percent jump from on-demand and streaming, Grey’s Anatomy already averages a 4.0 rating with adults 18-49 and 12.1 million viewers at the start of its second decade.
9. Criminal Minds
Possibly the biggest surprise on the list, 10-season-old Criminal Minds is CBS’ unsung workhorse. With no year-to-year fatigue — it’s actually up a tick — the procedural is the second-highest-rated drama on the network … even if NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans outperform it among total viewers. Criminal Minds is CBS’ youngest-skewing hour, with an average 3.9 rating among adults 18-49 this season, one reason why the network seems to be keen on taking another stab at a spinoff.
The third and final new entry on the list, Scorpion boasts a big, young audience. Its average 3.8 rating among adults 18-49 is enough to make it narrowly outpace dramas like ABC’s Once Upon a Time (honorable mention for coming in at No. 11), and with 18.5 million viewers per episode (once DVR, on-demand and steaming come into play), it’s also CBS’ fourth-most-watched series.
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